I had a little run-in with the police the other day while riding a matatu (public transport minivan) to Nairobi. Police checkpoints are really common here, and it’s not unusual for a matatu to get stopped twice in the one hour ride from Tala to Nairobi. The routine is as follows: officers pull seemingly random matatus over and, while “checking” the driver’s license and various aspects of the vehicle, pocket the money folded into the license. They’re good at it and it’s no secret.
As one officer was chatting with the driver another one pointed at me in the front seat. He had seen that I wasn’t wearing my seat belt, a crime in Kenya. He began to scold me, “You need to wear your seat belt.” I know I shouldn’t have, but I pointed to the guy next to me and said, “Neither is he.” Ignoring my comment, the officer continued to patronize me, “You have already violated the law. It’s not for my safety, it’s for yours. I am just warning you.” As matter-of-fact and helpful as it sounds, he was actually giggling; I could see he thought I was a clueless tourist. So I buckled up and off he went, grinning ear to ear and laughing with his buddies.
After we were back on the road I asked the guy next to me why the officer hadn’t chided him as well. He laughed and said, “Those are my colleagues, by the way.” Oh, ok, so it’s ok to break the law if the law enforcement officers are your friends? The ridiculous part is that none of the fourteen passengers (or the driver) were wearing seat belts. I know I should have been wearing my seat belt, but I am so used to not wearing them because it’s rare to find a matatu which even has seat belts (let alone working ones).
I should have been given a ticket. Actually, all fourteen passengers AND the driver should have been fined. Part of me knew that talking back to a police officer in Kenya is stupid, part of me realized he was just doing it to intimidate me, and it really ticked me off. Although I would have been happy to pay a fine, if he had given me a ticket without issuing everyone else one I just might have ripped up the ticket… Bad Alan, bad!
Corruption Stops With You
I know “corruption stops with you,” but how can we expect to stop corruption when it is everywhere in Kenya? The cops are just trying to get their own, the drivers would rather pay a bribe than fix their shitty matatus, and the passengers would rather dangle a broken seat belt over their lap than wait around to find a minivan with working belts. And then there’s the issue around enforcement, how can we start fining people for relatively stupid things like seat belts, smoking in public, etc, when fifty percent of Kenyans are under the poverty line? I get the feeling people would rather preserve the status quo than implement some tough changes just to get a little integrity around here.
And finally, some food for thought: I know it’s hard to quantify something like “most corrupt,” but I saw a BBC article a few months ago putting Kenya’s police force in the #1 spot in the world. On a positive note, the same article mentions that Kenya’s press is the “most free” in the world. I wish I could find the article…